Tone of voice influences learning

10 Nov 2017

SHRS tone of voiceThe tone words are spoken in affects the way we learn new words, according to a University of Queensland study.

The study led by PhD student Melina West from UQ’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciencesinvestigated how emotional information influences the way the brain processes language and how it affects people with autism-like traits.

“We found all participants showed poorer word recall and recognition when words were vocalised in a fearful way compared to words presented in a neutral way,” Ms West said.

“Those with lower levels of autism-like traits had more difficulty learning words presented in a happy tone compared to in a neutral tone, however those with higher autism-like traits were not affected by the happy sounding words.

“This suggests those with higher autism-like traits are not as influenced by emotion when learning language.”

Participants without a diagnosis of autism were tested for their level of autism-like traits and split into groups of high and low traits.

The two groups were required to learn fictional names of unique alien characters.

The names were presented with different emotional tones of voice; either a happy, fearful, or neutral tone of voice and participants were later tested on their ability to recall and recognise the words.

“Emotion captures our attention and can influence the way we process information,” Ms West said.

“Although there has been much research on the influence of emotion on cognition, there has been no previous research on how emotional tone of voice impacts word learning, specifically when the emotion is not relevant.

“For example, if a fearful tone was used to label something dangerous, the tone would be relevant information and might aid learning.

“But if such a tone was used with no relevance to the context, this might be distracting and detrimental to learning.

“Likewise, there has been much research on how those with autism and those with autism-like traits process emotion, but how emotion influences learning for these individuals has not been previously investigated.”

Ms West hopes the findings are used by researchers and practitioners to develop a greater understanding of autism as a spectrum condition.

“The characteristics often seen in autism are believed by some to be an extreme degree of characteristics which exist in all individuals,” Ms West said.

“For instance, we see a vast difference between all individuals in how they process emotion, and those with autism often show the greatest difference in this.

“While this study showed that emotional information interfered with word learning, it also suggested that this interference is not as strong for those with higher autism-like traits.

“This implies that the brain is not attending to emotion as much for these individuals, and that autism characteristics are related to an ability to learn language effectively despite the distraction of emotional information.”

The study is published in Motivation and Emotion.

Media: Melina West, +71 423 681 242; Kirsten O'Leary, UQ Communications,, +61 73365 7436